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«The Image of Socratic Irony from the Sophists to Nietzsche Liviu Iulian COCEI  The Image of Socratic Irony from the Sophists to Nietzsche ** ...»

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The dialogue is typical to the youth dialogues of Plato, where Socrates discusses also with ordinary people, and not just to field specialists. As regards Diderot’s dialogue, his goal seems to be to demonstrate that religion is actually a mischief and that it is not unsettling at all the thought that there would be no God. The suggestion of the French Enlightenment philosopher is that, from an ethical point of view, atheism is preferable to theism, “sinful” abuses and religious disputes proving that man, in order to be truly tolerant, is better to be unfaithful.

For Romantics, the profound meaning of Socratic irony is reflected in the creative imagination of some authors like Solger, Novalis and Schlegel brothers. “Novels are the Socratic dialogues of our time. In this liberal form, the wisdom of life ran away in front of scholastic wisdom,” 19 Friedrich Schlegel notes with ironic fineness, realizing that irony, despite the nefarious influence of the medieval spirit, found a way to express as free as possible. But the Romantics have not remained loyal to the gracious Socratic irony, exaggerating, in an even more radical form than cynicism, its possibilities. “Socratic irony argued only the usefulness and the certainty of a science of nature; romantic irony will argue, at the beginning of nineteenth century, the very existence of nature”20, Jankélévitch noted, suggesting how far the Romantics went. For them, the irony of Socrates was the expression of absolute freedom of inner-self to deny and to argue the actual order of things. Because of this, probably right, Hegel will characterize the romantic irony as being “infinite absolute negativity” and therefore essentially immoral. As for the specific irony of Socrates, Hegel believed that the expression of the undermined morality of the individual who wants to impose himself in front of the objective morality of the city. The German philosopher writes that Socrates “was sentenced to death because he refused to admit the competence of the people, his greatness over a convict”21, suggesting that the ironist has been properly condemned. This does not mean that Hegel did not understand the undermined style of the Greek philosopher. As proof, here’s what it says about the significance of Denis Diderot, „Convorbirea unui filozof cu soţia mareşalului de***”, in Opere alese, vol.

I, Editura de Stat pentru Literatură şi Artă, Bucureşti, 1956, p. 59.

19 August Wilhelm şi Friedrich von Schlegel, Despre literatură, Editura Univers, Bucureşti, 1983, p. 414 20 Vladimir Jankélévitch, op. cit., p. 15.

21 G.W.F. Hegel, Prelegeri de istorie a filozofiei, vol. I, Editura Academiei Române, Bucureşti,

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Socratic ambiguity: “When I say that I know what rationality is, what faith is, these are only totally


representations. In order become concrete they must to be explained, starting from the assumption that it is not known, for itself, what they are. This explanation of such representations is provoked by Socrates; and this is the true content of the Socratic irony”22.

Therefore, for Hegel, using the Socratic method is acceptable, but only as a starting point, as a principle of philosophical knowledge.

Like Hegel, Kierkegaard considers that Socrates was guilty of the charges brought against him, “because, on the one hand, the assumption of something totally abstract rather than the concrete individuality of gods meant a totally polemic reporting manner against the state Greek religion.

On the other hand, also a polemic reporting manner against the state religion was installing the silence, in which a warning voice was only occasionally heard instead of the Greek life which penetrated even in the most insignificant manifestations of god consciousness; this voice (and here lies perhaps the most profound controversy) never handles the substantial interests of the state life, does not issue on them and was only interested in the totally private and particular problems of Socrates and, rigorously, of his friends” 23. For Kierkegaard, irony must be a controlled act, as a sign of the balance between extreme trends, such as, for example, those of absolutization of life from here, respectively of life beyond. “In every personal life there are so many things someone has to give up, so many wild branches have to be cut. Irony can be an excellent surgeon, because, as I said, when the irony is controlled, its function is extremely important in order that the personal life regains health and truth,”24 writes the Danish philosopher, suggesting the opportunity of irony as a private phenomenon, just like it happened, at least until the process, also in the case of Socrates.

Finally, referring to Nietzsche’s critique on Socratic irony, it must be said that the German philosopher manifests an ambivalent attitude towards it, meaning that he admires the ludic nature and the courage of the Greek philosopher, but most often he condemns the method of philosophizing.

For example, when Socrates is interpreted in relation to Christianity, it is evident that Nietzsche appreciates the Greek ironist: “If everything goes well, it will come the time when, to strengthen our moral-rational, we will prefer to take in hand the Memories about Socrates than the Bible and when Montaigne and Horace will serve as precursors and guides in order to understand the simplest and the eternal wise mediator, Socrates. [...] Socrates exceeds the founder of Christianity by his cheerful way of his Idem, Prelegeri de istorie a filozofiei, vol. II, Editura Academiei Române, Bucureşti, 1964, p. 379.

23 Søren Kierkegaard, Despre conceptul de ironie, cu permanentă referire la Socrate, in op. cit., pp. 267-268.

24 Ibidem, p. 439.

The Image of Socratic Irony from the Sophists to Nietzsche seriousness and by his wisdom full of shuffles, which is the best state of mind of man. In addition, he had a higher intelligence”25. Apart from criticism on Christianity, it appears that the German thinker does not despise the irony of Socrates, suggesting that this is a sign of the spiritual health that prepares us for life’s challenges. Despite this sympathy, in his later writings, Nietzsche will start to doubt the greatness of Greek ironist – “Socrates was a jester who seemed to consider seriously what actually happened here?”26, he rhetorically asks himself – concluding that there is something ignoble in all its dialectic. Here is what he thought about Socratic irony: “Is the irony of Socrates an expression of revolt? a resentment of the plebeians? Does he relish himself as an oppressed his own ferocity in the knife stabs of the syllogism? Does he avenge himself on noble people whom he is fascinated?

– As a dialectician you have in hands a ruthless tool: you can use it as a tyrant, compromising you achieve victory. Dialectician leave to his opponent the care to prove that he is not an idiot: he gets you angry and at the same time he makes you helpless. Dialectician weakens the intellect of his opponent. – How? dialectic is only a vengeance form of Socrates?”27 Although it is true that Socrates plays the jester in Greek city, we must not forget that the jester embodies, in fact, that ironic consciousness that, beyond its hilarious appearance, hides suffering or discontent that do not concern only him but all who are around him. Being understood in this way, he would be considered by no means as an obstacle to progress, but a balance factor. Therefore, accusing Socrates of hard-feeling or revengeful attitudes, Nietzsche proved that, in fact, he himself is the resentful one.

Probably being the toughest critic of Socratic irony, Nietzsche will finally affirm that “Socrates wanted to die: the cup of poison was not given by Athens, but by himself, he forced Athens to give him the cup of poison...”28. According to him, the motivation of such a radical interpretation is that Socrates considered life as a disease; this idea is emphasized by Nietzsche, who interprets the last words of Socrates “«Oh, Crito, I owe a rooster to Aesculap.»“ and that he comments as follows: “This radical and terrible «last word» means to him who has ears to hear «Oh, Crito, life is a disease!» How is it possible? A man like him, who lived cheerfully and openly as a soldier – was pessimistic! In fact, it only showed a smiling face in front of life, constantly hiding the last verdict, his deepest feeling! Socrates, Socrates suffered of life! He revenged for that with those wrapped, horrific, pious, and curse words”29.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Omenesc, prea omenesc. O carte pentru spirite libere II, in Opere complete, vol.

3, Editura Hestia, Timişoara, 2000, pp. 398-399.

26 Idem, Amurgul idolilor sau cum se face filosofie cu ciocanul, Editura ETA, Cluj-Napoca, 1993, p. 14.

27 Ibidem, p. 15.

28 Ibidem, p. 16.

29 Idem, Ştiinţa voioasă, Humanitas, Bucureşti, 2006, p. 218.

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Indeed, as we noted in Hegel and Kierkegaard, Socrates abused the ironic method in front of his judges, especially when he told them, for instance, that appropriate punishment for him would be to be fed in Pritaneu (Plato’s Apology 36 e). This is why we can say, without any reservation, that Socrates’ «defense» is rather [...] the «accusation» that Socrates speaks against the “ungrateful” Athenians” 30 to its value and spiritual significance. Moreover, the accusatory tone and the air of superiority emerge right from the defense he builds: “Therefore I defend myself now: not for me, as it might think, far from me, you, Athenians; for you I defend myself, so, by condemning me, to let you sin in front of the gift that God made you”31. Betraying an obvious arrogance, we see that Socrates voluntarily assumes the role of scapegoat, being ready to let himself being sacrificed like those jesters at the court of kings, who sometimes are sentenced to death as a sign of redemption for the quietness of that society. But beyond all these records, it does not mean that Socrates had planned to die of disgust towards life. His last words should not be taken as an epigraph of the entire life. So the suggestion of the philosopher is not that the god of medicine cured him of life, but of. Therefore, Nietzsche was wrong thinking that the Greek ironist would have hated life as a whole, the “disease” Socrates got rid of was just his excruciating old age he expected. In this context, we note the very words of Socrates: “But if I

live longer, I know that I have to endure all insufficiencies of the agedness:

impaired vision, increasingly worse hearing; it will be much harder for me to learn something and much easier to forget what I know. Feeling so decrepit and getting to be disgusted by myself – how could I want to live more?”32 Moreover, we must not forget the fact that Socrates felt, however, that posterity will give him satisfaction, the few years he would had lived worth little compared to the importance of his philosophical heritage or to the example he gave. Therefore, the last statement of Socrates before he finally closed his eyes does not have to be interpreted in the direction given by Nietzsche, as being the words through which the philosopher got down the optimism mask, but in full agreement with the specific situation in which he was: the imminence of the death sentence, respectively the imminence of conviction to the agedness burdens. In other words, weighting the pros and cons of the decision of letting him convicted to death, the ironist Greek considered he died before the most sickly and unpleasant stage of human life, succeeding, however, due to his philosophical vision, “live along all ages”33. In conclusion, we can say that Socrates abused irony towards the Anton Adămuţ, Cum visează filosofii, Editura BIC ALL, Bucureşti, 2008, p. 19.

Platon, Apărarea lui Socrate 30 e, în op. cit., p. 31.

32 Xenofon, op. cit., p. 222.

33 Quintilian, op. cit., p. 236.

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end of his life, not with a bad grace, but to release himself from the background oh his deepest discontents, taking care to “hurt” his accusers and his fellows enough in order to awaken the truth from them. And by his way of life and especially by his way of dying, Socrates aroused admiration not only among those who have followed closely his ironic attitude, but also from those who knew him indirectly or only from books.


Adămuţ, Anton. 2008. Cum visează filosofii, Bucureşti: Editura BIC ALL.

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